Editorial: Distinction needed between active party and interested citizen in Bristol
It’s unfortunate the Bristol town selectboard went through a selection process for a planning commission member, made an informed decision and is now temporarily reneging on the board’s preferred choice. The board’s about-face is based on a rational policy, but the imposition in this case may have been made in haste and without needed distinctions about what constitutes legal standing.
At issue is the selection of Katie Raycroft-Meyer to the Bristol planning commission. She was informed this week that she might lose her recently appointed position on the commission because of her alleged involvement in a legal proceeding that involves a case still pending within the town.
The allegation is that she is a party to a legal action involving an appeal of a long-standing ruling involving the proposed Lathrop gravel pit. The case in question was filed several years ago. She denies direct involvement, maintains she has not been party to any of the actions represented by the parties in the case, nor has she been billed by an attorney for any of the proceedings in the case.
If true, that’s pretty convincing evidence that she is not an active party in this case, and the selectboard should consider her actions as they would any other interested citizen in the running — that is, someone who was seeking to be informed of the issues, but without wanting to take part (financial or otherwise) in the case.
The board, in its zest to be fair and apply the policy across the board (residents John Moyers, Andy Jackson and Jodi Lathrop have all been rejected on similar grounds), may have overreached.
In a motion passed at Monday’s selectboard meeting, the board unanimously agreed that if Raycroft-Meyer “is or has ever been represented by Andrew Jackson in the Lathrop zoning appeals, then she is removed as a member of the planning commission effective immediately.”
In this particular instance, Raycroft-Meyer told an Addison Independent reporter on Tuesday that she had “signed her name on the back of an envelope during the first zoning meeting regarding the gravel pit because I was interested in following the process… but that was prior to the permit going to litigation,” and since then she has had no direct involvement with the litigation.
Her defense, however, had not been heard by the selectboard before making their decision at Monday’s meeting.
What sparked the secret session Monday was a complaint by Jim Lathop, one of the owners of the gravel pit, that she had somehow been involved in the case. Town officials also said that attorneys involved with the case indicated her name was associated with the litigation.
But two things seem grossly out of place:
First, at least some members of the selectboard knew Lathrop would be at Monday’s meeting to register a complaint and Heffernan reportedly was informed before the meeting that more than one attorney alleged Raycroft-Meyer was associated with the case, and yet she wasn’t invited to attend the meeting or even asked for her response prior to the meeting. Rather, it was a surprise to her when she received the call on Tuesday morning advising that she might be dismissed from the commission without even allowing for her to respond to the accusations. (See story on Page 1A.) That’s no way to treat a fellow resident, nor it is good government.
Second, the definition of being a party to a case needs further refinement. There is a big difference between being a paying party to a legal proceeding and being an interested citizen who attends meetings, asks questions, and even advocates a position. The bar for disenfranchising citizens from participating on boards might well be set at being a legal participant in an active case, but it is far too restrictive if the bar is set to cover all those who are interested in understanding the issues or have even participated in pro-active groups for one side or the other.
Rather, as the selectboard initially found, Raycroft-Meyer is an informed resident, has experience in town planning, and in good faith was willing to serve the community she now calls home. Those are the attributes the selectboard valued when they enthusiastically appointed her to the board, and that should remain their conviction unless it is proven that she is actively and fully engaged in any current legal case pending before the town.
It’s not that the town’s policy is out of line (though this example is good reason why the town might put it in writing), but rather how one distinguishes between an active party to a legal proceeding and an interested citizen.
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